Salford CC v W & Ors (Religion and Declaration of Looked After Status)  EWHC 61 (Fam) was about the welfare of five children between the ages of eleven and four: B, C, D, E and F. There were three applications before the court: the first for care orders under s.31 of the Children Act 1989, first issued in December 2018 by Norfolk County Council, the second by their mother, Ms W, for a prohibited steps order pursuant to s. 8 of the Children Act 1989, and the third by the maternal aunt and putative special guardian of the children, Mrs Z, for a declaration under the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court regarding the children’s legal status for the purposes of Part III of the Children Act 1989 [1 & 2]. It is the second application that is the subject of this note.
All parties were agreed that the placement with Mrs Z and her husband Mr Y should continue and that the children should be placed under a special guardianship order in favour of Mrs Z and Mr Y: the children were thriving in their care and there were no safeguarding concerns about the placement . However, Mrs Z, a devout Roman Catholic, wished to involve the children in her faith  and their mother sought an order prohibiting Mrs Z from giving effect to her stated intention of having each of the children baptised and confirmed as Roman Catholics. While in Mrs Z’s care, the children had attended church every week and had been involved in all aspects of church life, celebrating religious festivals and praying the Rosary each evening. Mrs Z asserted that the children considered themselves Roman Catholics . The mother, on the other hand, said that she was a Pentecostalist and that, but for the children being removed from her care, she would have had them baptised in the Pentecostal faith . The mother’s application for a prohibited steps order was opposed by Mrs Z and Mr Y and by the Children’s Guardian .
As to the application for a prohibited steps order, MacDonald J concluded that, on the evidence, the children had participated “regularly and with some enthusiasm and dedication” in central aspects of the Roman Catholic faith without objection from their mother since 2017, and though she objected to their formal initiation, she did not take issue with their continued informal attendance at a Roman Catholic Church . Though Mr Y was a Protestant, it was clear that “by virtue of Mrs Z’s devout Catholic faith, and that of her extended family, Roman Catholicism is by far the dominant religious philosophy within the household” and that Roman Catholic religious observance “formed a significant element of the children’s daily lives within the family” .
Further, each of the children had “developed an understanding commensurate with their age of the formal rites of passage of that faith comprised by the sacraments, of the events that mark those rites of passage and of the importance of those rites of passage within the family and the community in which the children are being, and will be brought up”, and B, aged eleven, had questioned why he could not follow the rites of passage taken by his peers and by family members .
All parties were agreed that it was in the children’s best interests to live in a family in which the Roman Catholics faith was an integral part both of family life and of the life of the wider community:
“Within this context, were a prohibited steps order to be made in the terms sought by the mother, the children would be denied the option of participating in formal rites of passage that are a fundamental part of the ethical, social, moral, religious and cultural outlook of the family that now cares for them” .
Further, while the children’s wishes were not determinative, they reinforced MacDonald J’s conclusions about the detrimental impact that a prohibited steps order in the terms sought by the mother would have on their welfare . The application was refused .